Title: Me Before You
Author: Jojo Moyes
Published: 2012, Michael Joseph UK
I have been in a reviewing/blogging slump, probably because I’ve been writing so much for the PhD that my writing mojo is all going into that and not into this. However, I finally found something that inspired me to get back into it: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to differ from the collective opinion of the internet here: the reason I want to review it is because I couldn’t stand it.
Me Before You is admittedly not my normal fare. A friend recommended it when I joked about how I don’t “get” novels where the primary plot is romantic. The plot concerns a young, relatively ambitionless woman (Lou), who loses her job and is forced by financial circumstance to take a job as an untrained carer for a young man (Will) who has become quadriplegic through a motorbike accident. The book deals primarily with the subject of assisted suicide, although it tries (and fails) to insert snippets of commentary about the welfare system, sexual assault, and classism. The only reason I persevered through it is because two different friends had recommended it to me. (I sent one an itemised list of my complaints afterwards, because I am a Fun Person).
My first problem with the book is probably somewhat niche. It contains a lot of information about nursing and living on a council estate, which are two of my fields of expertise. I won’t go into detail about all the issues with the medical and nursing information depicted in this book, because that would be an entire review in itself, but I think one scene neatly encapsulates my problems with it.
[Will has had a temperature all day, and Nathan, his nurse, has just turned up for his shift and discovered this].
“Jesus. All morning? Didn’t you know he can’t regulate his own temperature?” He pushed past me and began rummaging in the medicine cabinet. “Antibiotics. The strong ones.” He held up a jar and emptied one into the pestle and mortar, grinding it furiously.
I hovered behind him. “I gave him a paracetamol.”
“Might as well have given him an Opal Fruit.”
“Let him sleep. But wake him after a couple of hours and make sure you get the best part of a beaker of fluids into him. More fever meds at five, okay? His temperature will probably shoot up again in the last hour, but nothing more before five.”
I scribbled everything down on a notepad. I was afraid of getting anything wrong.
(extracts from Chapter 6)
The flaws in this scene could have been addressed by any half-awake nurse reading it through once. Nurses don’t refer to antibiotics as “fever meds” or “extra-strong fever medication”, at least not in the UK, at least not any of the ones I know or have ever worked with. I’ve never heard anyone use that term for any drug, in fact. Most nurses don’t have the authority to start a patient on antibiotics. Even if Nathan did have a prescribing qualification, or a prescription to start them according to his clinical judgement, a stat dose of a generic oral antibiotic won’t bring someone’s temperature down within 40 minutes, as it did here. Antibiotics are for treating infection, not the symptoms of infection. Ironically, the paracetamol Lou gave Will would have been far more effective in that regard. Randomly chucking antibiotics into an urgent care situation does nothing*. Also, if a nurse refers to “strong antibiotics”, s/he is normally explaining the difference between oral and intravenous, not distinguishing between different drugs. This might all sound pedantic, but misunderstanding of antibiotic function is a serious health literacy issue, and misrepresenting them in books doesn’t help. Also, it broke my suspension of disbelief constantly: if Nathan were a real nurse, he’d be struck off about three times over (leaving an untrained, totally inexperienced carer in charge of an emergency drug box on her first day?).
I also struggled with aspects of the book structure. It uses first-person narration, primarily from Lou’s viewpoint. However, there is one section narrated by Will’s mother Mrs Traynor, and one by Nathan. These seem to be used to tell us things that thoughtful narration could have shown the reader more subtly, even if Lou herself didn’t pick up on them—for example, Mrs Traynor’s internal conflict about Will’s decision. Also on the subject of structure, Moyes would periodically info-dump something that she’d clearly researched for the book, rather than integrating it with the plot: “Hey, look at all the things I learnt about Autonomic Dysreflexia! Learn With Me!” I am all for learning fascinating information through books; I just prefer it to be weaved in with the rest of the narrative.
Sometimes the info dumps take a stream-of-consciousness format, especially in Nathan’s section of the narrative, but mostly they are posts from an online forum for quadriplegic patients and their carers. This plays into my concerns with the medical misinformation, as well. The book read as though Moyes’ primary research had been in the way of this kind of online discussion. Of course, that type of research is absolutely essential for a book like this, but other types of research are important too. I am sure she did do thorough research, but the combination of the inaccuracies and the forum posts makes the book feel rather “stitched together”, instead of flowing neatly and consistently from one section to the next.
All this is to say nothing of the way the author chose to address the question of assisted suicide. It’s an important subject that deserved better handling. Although I tend to oppose the legalisation of assisted suicide for a variety of reasons, I have looked after enough people with severe, debilitating, and degenerative conditions that I understand where both sides are coming from and I’m open to discussion. My issue is how the book discusses it. Will intends to commit assisted suicide. However, the narrative doesn’t focus on the humiliation of his condition, his need for constant care, or him feeling that he is a burden on his family. It doesn’t really discuss his constant pain; he isn’t portrayed as fearing further degeneration. His reasons for wanting to die are much less reasonable: he can’t abseil or go white-water rafting these days, and it’s harder to travel in a wheelchair (not impossible, though, because he is absolutely loaded). He doesn’t come across someone who’s lost the basic and fundamental abilities that able-bodied people take for granted (though that is the case), but as an entitled rich kid who’s lost some of the privileges that entitled rich kids take for granted. It felt like this very emotive, sensitive subject had been co-opted to make a rather bland love story more exciting—which is a bit grim, when you think about it.
And the love story itself—the reason the book was recommended to me in the first place? It fell pretty flat. Admittedly, this may not be the fault of the narrative. I very rarely engage with love stories in books, and any book actively trying to sell me one makes me roll my eyes. (I am much more likely to be drawn into a C-plot love story taking place over three or four books. While I am distracted figuring out who the murderer is/whether the aliens are friendly etc., an author can cleverly make me invest in a romance without noticing. Suddenly it’s the end of the book and I am inexplicably crying). To me, the book didn’t bother to establish a friendship between Lou and Will. They went from being two people who didn’t like each other to two people in love, without showing me when or why. Will was that guy that I hate in romance novels: he tells the girl that the mainstream fiction she likes is trashy, and nags her to read Hemingway instead**; he gets at her for enjoying TV too much and not watching films with subtitles; he showers her with money, which I always find profoundly icky as a plot device when used in a love story. I didn’t even shed a tear at the end, and all my friends wept buckets. I’m sorry, everyone. Recommend me more books about spaceships and fewer about romance, that’s all I can say.
Now, I know it’s good manners to finish a negative review with something positive. Other than this book got me out of my blogging slump, the only thing I really liked about it was the epilogue. I love epilogues, anyway, and I feel like this one was fairly well-done. Lou is given more character development in these few pages than she is in the rest of the book, and I did feel some level of satisfaction as to how her character was wrapped up. I probably won’t read the second book in the series, but it was nice to have some sort of closure on the whole story.
Overall, I’m glad I persevered through this book, because I missed blogging. I hope that next time I get inspired, though, it’s by a book that I love.
*In a hospital situation, it’s completely plausible that a doctor might draw bloods and give a patient with suspected sepsis a stat dose of a generic IV antibiotic while waiting for results—s/he would be treating the infection, not the pyrexia, as was happening here. Honestly, Nathan should have rung an ambulance in that situation—they come out even when it’s snowing.
**I can’t remember if it was actually Hemingway, but it was definitely a very Hemingway sort of author.